The skin is the largest organ in the body, and it is therefore not surprising that cancer of the skin is the most common of all cancers. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma make up the vast majority of cases. Melanoma is the least common but the most deadly skin cancer, accounting for only about 4% of all cases but 79% of skin cancer deaths.1 For 2002, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 53,600 new cases of melanoma in the United States and 7,400 deaths from the disease.
Melanoma is currently the sixth most common cancer in American men and the seventh most common in American women. The
median age at diagnosis is between 45 and 55, although 25% of cases occur in individuals before age 40. It is the second most
common cancer in women between the ages of 20 and 35, and the leading cause of cancer death in women ages
Race is the primary risk factor for developing melanoma, with fair-skinned races at greater risk than darker-skinned races. In the United States, white Americans are 20 times more likely to develop melanoma than African Americans. Worldwide, white populations have the highest risk of developing melanoma, and Asian populations the lowest risk. 2
The United States has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of melanoma cases over the past few decades. According to the American Cancer Society, the incidence rate for melanoma (number of new cases of melanoma per 100,000 people each year) has more than doubled since 1973. The mortality rate for melanoma (number of deaths per 100,000 people each year) has increased at a much slower pace and has remained stable over the past 10 years. During this same time period, there has been a significant rise in overall five-year survival in patients with melanoma. This may be due to thinner depth of tumors at time of diagnosis and improved surgical techniques to treat the disease.
The world's highest incidence of melanoma is in Australia, where risk factors include the country's proximity to the equator, areas of ozone layer depletion, and a fair-skinned immigrant population. A decrease in average tumor depth at the time of diagnosis has been attributed to Australia's extensive skin cancer screening program.